Bard of the Bad­lands

Boyd Tonkin ex­plores the psy­cho­log­i­cal land­scape be­hind the novel and film of No Coun­try for Old Men

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

SORRY, Douglas Adams. The an­swer is not 42. It is 117. But what was the ques­tion? In No Coun­try for Old Men, Cor­mac McCarthy’s soul- chill­ing killer An­ton Chig­urh pur­sues an­other deadly piece of busi­ness to a mo­tel door that bears that num­ber. In McCarthy’s The Road , the prior apoc­a­lypse whose af­ter­math the book re­counts has taken place at 1.17, pre­cisely, on an un­known date.

McCarthyites — their num­ber is le­gion, and will surely grow af­ter the Coen brothers’ four Os­cars for their ver­sion of No Coun­try — have scoured the books of the Bi­ble for an ap­pro­pri­ate text. Per­haps Reve­la­tion 1: 17 holds the key? ‘‘ And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead: and he laid his right hand upon me, say­ing unto me, ‘ Fear not, I am the first and the last.’ ’’

When, last year, The New York Times Book Re­view polled 200 writ­ers and crit­ics to de­ter­mine the 25 best Amer­i­can nov­els of the past quar­ter- cen­tury, McCarthy’s gory his­tor­i­cal land­mark from 1985, Blood Merid­ian, came third ( be­hind only Toni Mor­ri­son’s Beloved and Don DeLillo’s Un­der­world ). The Border Tril­ogy that oc­cu­pied McCarthy through the 1990s, All the Pretty Horses , The Cross­ing and Cities of the Plain , also made the cut.

McCarthy is run­ning ahead of the rest of the lit­er­ary posse. Why him, and why now? Why should this tac­i­turn semi- recluse who in­sists that his blood- washed books have to ex­plain them­selves be rou­tinely ac­claimed as the great­est Amer­i­can nov­el­ist since William Faulkner, his spir­i­tual if not stylis­tic an­ces­tor?

That is a ques­tion al­most more in­trigu­ing than to ask how Javier Bar­dem, the Coens’ in­spired Chig­urh, put up for so long with the hair­cut from hell. A ten­ta­tive an­swer might in­volve some rev­e­la­tions, and not al­ways wel­come news about the state of the Amer­i­can soul.

As so of­ten with the au­thors who mag­ne­tise the spirit of an age, bi­og­ra­phy will tell you ev­ery­thing and noth­ing. Born in Rhode Is­land in 1933, as Charles McCarthy, he moved south as a child when his lawyer fa­ther worked for the Ten­nessee Val­ley Author­ity. Af­ter univer­sity in Ten­nessee, this fa­mous in­ter­view re­fusenik served in the US Air Force in Alaska and, of all things, hosted a ra­dio show.

As an as­pir­ing writer in the 1960s and ’ 70s, he eked out a liv­ing in Ten­nessee and Europe, liv­ing in Ibiza for a while. His de­but novel, The Or­chard Keeper , ap­peared in 1965. Al­bert Ersk­ine, the ed­i­tor at Ran­dom House of that and sev­eral later books, had also edited Faulkner. Still very far from fame, McCarthy moved through and past two mar­riages and, no­to­ri­ously, plumbed the depths of au­tho­rial poverty, though in a barn in Ten­nessee, not an ur­ban gar­ret.

His first ma­jor novel, Sut­tree , ap­peared in 1979. It re­mains, with its fish­er­man drop- out quit­ting the city to learn na­ture’s wis­dom, the clos­est thing to an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel we have. A ‘‘ ge­nius grant’’ from the MacArthur Foun­da­tion in 1981 then bought the time and space that yielded Blood Merid­ian , a re­morse­lessly vi­o­lent tale of the Glan­ton gang in the late 1840s and their equally sav­age neme­sis, Judge Holden. As its rep­u­ta­tion swelled, the novel, with its sin­gu­lar blend of bi­b­li­cally rhyth­mi­cal prose, stom­ach- twist­ing cru­el­ties and doomy philo­soph­i­cal res­o­nance, se­cured McCarthy his seat at the top ta­ble of Amer­i­can let­ters. But, in gen­eral, he prefers not to show up.

A Time mag­a­zine ‘‘ di­a­logue’’ with Joel and Ethan Coen re­cently showed the sage at his rid­dling, la­conic best, or worst, choos­ing to sound more like For­rest Gump than Faulkner’s right­ful heir. Here’s McCarthy on cin­ema: ‘‘ There are a lot of good Amer­i­can movies, you know. I’m not that big a fan of ex­otic for­eign films.’’

This gnomic per­sona, bro­ken at last for an il­lu­mi­nat­ing in­ter­view with David Kush­ner in Rolling Stone last De­cem­ber, did its job for the McCarthy cult. His nov­els, so rich and yet so ret­i­cent, be­came sites of mys­tery and in­vi­ta­tions to a de­cod­ing. What he found in the con­ven­tions of the west­ern was a wide- open space ready for a creative pi­o­neer to plant his flag.

The au­thor’s self- ap­pointed cryp­tog­ra­phers were soon on his case. Fre­quently they found gnos­tic the­ol­ogy be­hind the slay­ings and show­downs that fill the Rio Grande with corpses in his work, with its bleak vi­sion of a mor­tal realm gov­erned, not by the good­ness of God, but the forces of a Chig­urh- like evil.

Yet McCarthy’s take on re­li­gion re­mains as enig­matic as the rest of his be­liefs. The rhythms of the Bi­ble may pulse through his style, but his think­ing seems to fol­low a dif­fer­ent drum. You may read him as a satirist of cock­sure faith as much as the lit­er­ary prophet who speaks from, and to, the end- time imag­i­na­tion of born- again Amer­ica. Writ­ing about The Road , Bri­tish nov­el­ist Clive Sin­clair shrewdly noted that its blasted scenery de­liv­ers an aw­ful warn­ing to ‘‘ Coke- swill­ing horse­men of the apoc­a­lypse’’: ‘‘ Fol­low me, in­vites McCarthy, and see just what that rap­ture will be like.’’

If Chig­urh in No Coun­try can be viewed as some kind of an­gel of death, or devil in­car­nate, then the forces of law em­bod­ied in frail Sher­iff Bell have no an­swer to his power. McCarthy’s philo­soph­i­cal pes­simism can feel less like an off­shoot of the Chris­tian Right than an out­post of neo- pa­gan­ism, the work of some Schopen­hauer or Ni­et­zsche of the Bad­lands. He can con­jure up apoc­a­lypse with­out sug­gest­ing much prospect of re­demp­tion. ‘‘ What do you say to a man that by his own ad­mis­sion has no soul?’’ asks Bell as he looks back on the teenage psy­chopath he sent to the gas cham­ber at Huntsville, and for­ward to the fiercer winds of break­down and dis­or­der em­bod­ied in Chig­urh. ‘‘ But he wasn’t nothin’ com­pared to what was comin’ down the pike.’’

Comin’ down the pike is, re­li­ably, some­thing even worse. Here, the the­o­log­i­cal over­tones of McCarthy’s prose fuse with his long­stand­ing en­gage­ment with science. Sit­ting in old Europe, it sounds as if that ought to be some kind of con­tra­dic­tion; in McCarthy’s world, it isn’t. That makes him a very Amer­i­can idol. His choice of sides in the ‘‘ two cul­tures’’ is il­lus­trated by what this for­mer stu­dent of en­gi­neer­ing and physics told Kush­ner about the awards din­ner at the MacArthur Foun­da­tion in 1981. ‘‘ The artsy crowd was all dressed and drugged and ready to party. I just started hang­ing out with sci­en­tists be­cause they were more in­ter­est­ing.’’

McCarthy has made a close con­nec­tion with the Santa Fe In­sti­tute in New Mex­ico: an in­ter­dis­ci­plinary sci­en­tific think- tank co- founded by the revo­lu­tion­ary par­ti­cle physi­cist Murray Gell- Mann in 1984. A base camp for bor­der­cross­ing mav­er­icks, Santa Fe also be­came a home away from home for the nov­el­ist, who tests hu­mans and their eth­i­cal prin­ci­ples to de­struc­tion and be­yond.

Santa Fe con­cerns it­self with com­plex sys­tems, why they work and why they don’t. You might ar­gue that the me­chan­ics of de­struc­tion ex­posed in McCarthy’s work draws at­ten­tion, by bloody con­trast, to the ev­ery­day mir­a­cle of hu­man co- op­er­a­tion and com­mu­nity. Even the clos­ing­time dark­ness of The Road was lit by the light­ning of the sur­vivor’s love for his son. Not coin­ci­den­tally, McCarthy be­came a fa­ther again at the end of the mil­len­nium.

For him, science guards the flame of cre­ation that lit­er­a­ture has lost. ‘‘ Part of what you re­spect is their rigour,’’ he says of sci­en­tists he ad­mires. ‘‘ When you say some­thing, it needs to be right. You can’t just spec­u­late idly about things.’’

A nov­el­ist who can spend weeks rid­ing the lex­i­cal range in search of the mot juste may well en­joy the com­pany of such spir­its. Yet what they think and say has shaped his work as well. McCarthy seems to have im­bibed a sci­en­tific pes­simism presently ex­pressed in, but by no means con­fined to, wor­ries about cli­mate change and en­vi­ron­men­tal en­tropy.

At Sante Fe, the sub­jects that snagged in McCarthy’s imag­i­na­tion in­clude the lo­gis­tics of mass ex­tinc­tion, best known through study of the me­te­orite strike that ended the reign of the di­nosaurs 65 mil­lion years ago. Traces of this fas­ci­na­tion crop up in The Road , but the rest of his oeu­vre hints heav­ily that feral hu­man be­ings can eas­ily reach their own apoca­lyp­tic cri­sis, with­out any help from out­side. ‘‘ We’re go­ing to do our­selves in first,’’ he said to Kush­ner when asked about the threat of cli­mate change.

Yes, McCarthy can sound as much like Eey­ore as the prophet Jeremiah. This dooms­day voice can, in his fiction, teeter on the edge of ab­sur­dity. Part of the Coen brothers’ ge­nius was to spot this comic po­ten­tial and re­pro­gram it into a sig­nal virtue, thanks to Bar­dem’s ex­quis­ite dead­pan tim­ing. Scep­tics point to fea­tures of McCarthy’s work that might dis­able a du­ti­ful so­cial re­al­ist but will hardly bother a writer so doggedly steeped in archetype and myth: the spec­tral pres­ence of the en­croach­ing Mex­i­cans who for­ever threaten to wipe out lines in the An­glo sand, or the van­ish­ingly small part that women tend to play. No doubt the cetacean com­mu­nity had grave doubts about the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of whales in one of McCarthy’s touch­stones, Moby- Dick. As McCarthy so fe­ro­ciously un­der­mines the self­im­age of a dom­i­nant civil­i­sa­tion from within, he hardly needs ex­ter­nal points of ref­er­ence.

In­ter­pre­ta­tions of his work will spawn like salmon in the stream. And, for the most part, McCarthy will sit tight, look af­ter his son and read more hard science. It seems plau­si­ble to state that, what­ever its other qual­i­ties, his work poses as tough a chal­lenge to the Amer­i­can ide­ol­ogy of op­ti­mism, and the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness, as any ma­jor writer. Tak­ing its mood and its words from the Old Tes­ta­ment, that fron­tiers­man’s dread has long haunted Amer­i­can cul­ture, a gloomy ghost at the feast. So­cial trauma and en­vi­ron­men­tal risk have given it an­other lease of life. This might pose a prob­lem for any pub­lic thinker, let alone a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date who cheer­ily sets up a stall sign­posted ‘‘ Change’’. If I were Barack Obama, I would pay a visit to Santa Fe soon. The In­de­pen­dent

Il­lus­tra­tion: Michael Perkins

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